Friday, March 11, 2011

A Second Look at the Irish

Last year in March my blog was entitled “No Irish Need Apply.” Written as an antidote to the sentimentalism that often attends St. Patrick’s Day, that article featured images of Irish immigrants looking like monkeys, planting explosives, fighting with police, and in general posing a threat to American society.

In this blog I attempt to show the progression that sentiments about the Irish underwent from the late-19th to the early-20th Century. A reminder of the bestial and dangerous Irishman is an 1880s trade card advertising the New Home Sewing Machine Co. It shows a simian-like man pouring a glass of whiskey while tending a range of explosive materials and devices.

The Free Home Co., creator of the card, was founded in 1882 and boasted a New York City address. Acquired by another manufacturer in 1927, products were sold under the Free Home name until 1957. My assumption is that prejudice against Irish was so strong at the time that this image was believed to sell sewing machines.

An early St. Patrick’s Day card echoes the notion of the Irishman as a ruffian and a drunk. Note the bottle sticking from his coat pocket. Although the dynamite and bombs are missing from the portrait this is still a dangerous individual. That it is tied to a St. Patrick’s greeting makes it all the more offensive. Just bit more refined, is a “Dear Oirish” postcard of the same era. Both the monkey look and the whiskey jug are evident.

Pond’s Extract was a patent medicine that claimed to cure everything from influenza and hemorrhages to chilblains and hemorrhoids. With an address at 76 Fifth Avenue in New York, the company issued a trade card in 1892 purporting to show an Irishman “bound for Donnybrook Fair” -- an event in Ireland known for being rough and rowdy. Although his looks have improved, this Paddy still wields a club and carries a flask of booze. He is said to be “fully equipped.”

A second postcard from that same year has more complex message. On once side is an American Indian; on the other a elderly man with a pipe. The legend reads: “The Indian with his pipe of peace will soon pass away; But the Irishman with his piece of pipe will last for many a day.” I have seen other cards with the same rhyme. The message seems to be that neither ethnic group was desirable, but the Irish were now the larger problem.

Even so, the image of the Irishman was changing. A 1907 St. Patrick’s card shows a well-dressed, polite son of Ireland, tipping his hat and calling out, “Top of the mornin’ to you.” This was the work of Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle (1865-1934), an American illustrator/commercial artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the most talented and prolific postcard and souvenir illustrators of her time, her cards set a tone for an upscale depiction of the Irish.

Within a few years postcards were depicting Irish in an angelic mode. Gone are the club and the whiskey, although the clay pipe remains in the picture. A 1914 card shows an Irishman on angelic wings who is being carried up to the Pearly Gates. The legend tells us “An Irishman dies every time they are short an Angel in heaven.”

The final card, vintage the 1930s, shows the Irishman as arms-around firm friend of Uncle Sam. Their flags fly together amidst the shamrocks. Drink is back but in a decorous fashion. The two raise a glass to the bond between the two countries and peoples -- a far cry from the image produced by the New Home Sewing Machine Co.
The progression from the monkey-faced, drunken and destructive Irishman took several generations to reach the well-clad, genial one of more recent times. The scary immigrant of old morphed to a staunch American fully in the embrace of our national symbol.

What was responsible for the change? I believe the sheer numbers of Irish-Americans and their relatively rapid rise economically in the United States. In America a few bucks in the pocket can result in an ocean of respect.

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